Yucatan by Bicycle
Words by Anna Maria Diaz-Balart
The Yucatan Peninsula is bike country. Through most of its modern history it was accessible mostly by boat, and any movement though its interior happened over a limited narrow gauge railroad. Yucatan’s complicated, bloody, and somewhat awesome history meant it only officially became part of Mexico in the 1930’s. Traveling there today means you’ll see more bikes than cars. Tricycle taxis dominate, and pre-war bicycles with their elegant odd form and 28 inch wheels are everywhere. Its a place where whole families can get on a single bike, and where traditional Maya farmers commute to their milpa by bicycle, machete at the waist and scrawny dog trotting along side. Its a part of the world that I have been fortunate to visit extensively. This past January I was lucky enough to visit with my boyfriend, Shawn Wolf, and two folding Dahon bikes.
The Yucatan is now covered by a brand new, barely used system of rural highways. It is perfect for bike trips and road trips, and with our Dahon’s we were able to combine the two. We started by flying in to Cancun. The bikes, with wheels removed, fit in to two large suitcases. We rented a tiny, four door Chevy and drove as fast as we could down to Tulum. While Tulum town continues to improve, we wanted to wake up walk directly out to the beach. We stayed at My Tulum Cabana. I'm not sure you can find a less expensive place to stay in the hotel strip. It's operated by a cheerful, laid back family, eager to help you with local plans. We assembled our bikes under the dim glow of a single wind powered bulb, and were off to Tulum town to find better and cheaper places to eat. Tulum might be growing at a breakneck pace, but the beach still has an incredibly laid back hippy vibe. You’d be hard pressed to find a place that wasn’t burning incense or offering yoga. The town is a twenty minute bike ride away and, unlike Tulum beach, is connected to the electrical grid. It has amazing seafood restaurants, taco spots, and proper bike shops.
Tulum is best experienced by bike, from an early morning trip to the Tulum ruins (don't forget your swim suit! These pyramids also have a great beach access) to riding into the Si’an Kan Biosphere and checking out the Muyil ruins. Everyone is getting around by bike and, if you travel without one, you won't have a hard time getting a beach cruiser. Many hotels have them for free and rentals start at about $8 a day. Because the beach is off the grid, I strongly recommend traveling with your own set of bright front and rear bike lights, which are key even when you are walking at night. While in Tulum we did a snorkeling trip with Mexidivers, two separate dives with expert guides. The reef was just incredible and I had never swam in such large schools of tropical fish. Tulum, and its neighbor to the north Akumal, are famous for sea turtles and we managed to see one of these guys up close.
Leaving Tulum, we drove inland to the ruins of Coba. These ruins spread out over a kilometer deep in the jungle. You are able to rent bikes, but we were happy to explore on the Dahons. (Whether you rent, or BYOB, you are going to have to pay the $2.50 bicycle fee.) It's pretty fun to rip around the gravely trails, and if you’re Shawn, raise a few eyebrows doing pyramid wheelies.
Near the Coba ruins are a group of three Cenotes, accessible by bike or car. They are an awesome way too cool off after biking around the ruins. They are almost completely enclosed, so they have incredibly clean, crystaline water and are great for diving. They are connected by desolate, limestone roads; we biked hand in hand, listening to the sounds of the jungle, just as the day heat started breaking. I’m not sure my heart could’ve been any happier.
Just past Coba is the colonial city of Valladolid. Another cyclists paradise, the city streets are teaming with bikes of all kinds and the roads leading out of town have great set apart bike paths. It is possible to visit some of the most gorgeous cenotes in the Yucatan, as well as visit some sleepy Mayan villages. There are plenty of places to stop along the way for water and snacks.
From Valladolid, Shawn and I headed deep into the jungle for a trek I’d heard about for years but, never felt brave enough to do before. We drove south, towards the town of Dzuiche, stopping just short in the tiny village of Kantemo where a small group of indigenous people have made an ecotourism co-op around a particularly interesting natural phenomenon. Close to the village there is a cave inhabited by thousands of bats, over the years a colony of rat snakes has taken to clinging to the ceiling of the cave in order to catch their dinner when the bats leave each night. We arrived in Kantemo in the early afternoon and met our guide, Baltazar Borges-Cob. He outfitted us with mountain bikes, helmets with lights, face masks and latex gloves. We biked into the jungle and started descending into the cave just as night was falling. It's a steep descent in the darkness, and you feel the batwings flapping all around you. The smell of the bat guano is intense even through the mask. At the floor of the cave, you crawl into one of two tunnels, each no more than 3 or 4 feet high, to look for the snakes. This part is illuminated by one rear bike light, and in that weak red light we saw a giant snake eating its dinner feet away from our faces! The whole experience is overwhelming, and terrifying, and cool. At the lowest part of the cave you can see blind, albino fish, shrimp, and eels that have evolved to live in the pitch black environment, and everywhere the surrounding rock is made of seashells reminding you that the Yucatan was once the floor of the prehistoric ocean.
The jungle air is especially sweet once you're back on the surface. Kantemo is too small a village to have a restaurant or even a Cocina Economica. Many tour outfitters pile folks back into a bus for a return trip to Valladolid. We were fortunate enough to have dinner with the Borges-Cob family. He lives in a multi generational home with his father, siblings, nephews and daughter. We all sat around and helped his sister-in-law make tortillas over their open fire stove. We patted masa made from maise nixtamal into tortillas, and ate them rolled up with salt right off the sheet of metal they were being cooked on. We ate this along a with a chicken stew and it was easily the best meal we had on our trip. Language was limited, I speak spanish, but neither of us speak Yucatec Maya. Regardless, we happily spent the evening watching the kids and animals play. In the morning, we met Baltazar at his milpa and ate sweet oranges and coconut for breakfast before heading out to Santa Elena.
The Routa Puuc is a well known trek through the Puuc region of Yucatan that borders Campeche. It is arrid, full of gentle rolling hills, and has the highest concentration of Terminal Classic Maya ruins anywhere in region. We stayed at the Pickled Onion, which is a fantastic hotel even if it wasn’t in the heart of some of the most breathtaking ruins on earth. Valerie, the hotel owner, will happily help figure out how to get you and your bikes to the farthest part of the route, and upon your return in the evening you’ll have a refreshing pool to relax in and an amazing restaurant to eat in. Shawn and I spent far too much time in the two person hammock that hung over the pool. And we would have stayed here all week if we didn't have to head back towards Quintana Roo.
On our way back to Cancun, we passed through the incredible town of Acanceh, where ancient pyramids are nestled between colonial buildings (which, as in much of Yucantan are themselves made out of pyramid stones.) Acanceh is also the heart of cenote country, being at the edge of the Chicxlub Crater. We also stopped in Chichen Itza, because despite the hoards of tourists, this site truly one of the wonders of the ancient world. To break up this leg of the trip, we stayed in the outskirts of Valladolid at Hacienda San Miguel. While not as spectacular as some of Yucatan’s colonial henequen plantations, it was grand even in its decay, and its location on the way to Uayma can add some miles in the saddle around Valladolid. Personally we both preferred the social, and centrally located Candelaria Hostel, where there was both wifi and ample indoor bike parking.
I can’t recommend traveling by bike in the Yucatan strongly enough. My love affair with this part of the world really started when I came across the Bicycle Yucatan website and guidebooks. John and Jane have been traveling in the Yucatan since the mid 80’s and their knowledge is the key that unlocks everything. Undoubtedly our mixed bike/road trip was the easiest way to see and do everything. There are plenty of outfitters that will help you plan a supported tour which I would also highly recommend. Experienced self supported bike tour folks who also speak spanish would also love this part of the world. Sparse settlement and limited access to clean water means its not for everyone. The crime rate in Yucatan is on par with the state of Vermont, and is truly one of the most magical places on earth one can visit. From sea turtles, to Mayan ruins, to the total solitude of the dense jungle, the Yucatan is not to be missed.